In 1610, just a few weeks before a Catholic fanatic assassinated the first Bourbon king of France, James I of England told Parliament that “the king is truly parens patriae ”. This observation holds truer for France than for Britain. One of the most telling features of French monarchical history has been its re mark able continuity of succession from France’s fragmented inchoation: in the 19th century, the last Bourbon kings of France could trace their right to the throne through indirect descent over eight centuries back to the founder of the Capetian dynasty, Hugh Capet, in 987.
This continuity was particularly important to the Capetians: for nearly 350 years, the throne passed directly down the paternal line. In that time, France grew from a tiny, re gional royal principality based around the Île-de-France into a fully fledged and stable state, governed from Paris through established legal and administrative machinery that remained intact until the French Revolution.
In his book of the dynasty, Jim Bradbury estimates that the Capetians were, by the time of their demise, probably the most powerful rulers in Europe. Not only did they benefit from the steady supply of male heirs; they were further blessed in that these sons were famously respectful, obedient and, cru cially, nonrebellious, which facilitated a smooth sequence of succession and continuity of government. This represented not so much family harmony as sensible politics, institutionalised by association (filial co-monarchy), and was used to great effect by Louis VII and Philip Augustus against their dys - functional Angevin enemies.
Although not taking the same roseate view of the Capetians as the French historian Robert Fawtier did more than 60 years ago in his still highly readable The Capetian Kings of France , Bradbury nevertheless offers a similar assessment of the dynasty and its achievements. Just as Fawtier concluded that “none of the Capet ians was a man of genius, but all of them were intelligent and hardworking men”, so Bradbury affirms that “good and competent rulers were the mainstay of the dynasty”. The outstanding kings — Philip II Augustus (or “the Great”, as his biographer Bradbury prefers), St Louis IX and Philip IV the Fair — are sensibly afforded expanded sections to accommodate the drama of their reigns (the excitement of which is sometimes lost in Bradbury’s heavily factual prose and impressive barrage of information). Bradbury offers the reader some convincing, if not always fully developed, revisionist angles. He argues that the early kings were not as weak as historians like to portray, citing imperial marriage ties as a marker of how contemporaries perceived their real power. He also defends Louis VII against criticism for divorcing Eleanor of Aquitaine, an event that ultimately led to the creation of the vast, hostile Angevin Empire eating up huge tracts of France. As Bradbury rightly points out, none of this was preordained; besides, Louis was free to find, eventually, a new wife who at last provided him with a son, Philip Augustus, who eliminated the Angevin threat.
By the time France had acquired England’s taste for state-sponsored regicide in 1793 with the execution of Louis XVI (not quite the last French Bourbon, but the one who symbolises France’s passage to republicanism), Louis XIV had, a century earlier, pretty much accomplished complete royal suprem - acy over all of France, a process that had begun with the Capet - ians in the 12th century and that somehow prevailed during the innumerable acute crises of the intervening Valois dynasty. (The Valois are covered in Robert Knecht’s lucid and authoritative contribution to this series.)
Just as the Capetians generally proved adept kings, so, as J. H. Shennan shows, the Bourbons proved inept ones after the Sun King had finished his work. Even Louis XIV’s indisputable achievements came at a huge price — both economically and politically — that burdened his less able heirs. If Louis XIV was an overbearing parens , he at least got results — and respect.
In his wonderfully readable and scintillating book, Shennan reveals how the dynasty alien - ated their subjects and squandered the great public goodwill displayed to the first Bourbon king in 1589: Henry IV’s down-to-earth persona and unpretentious lifestyle emanated “the reassuring sense of shared humanity with his subjects”, allowing “the people at large to identify with the aspirations of such a king, to assume that he had their welfare at heart.” By the 1770s, however, Louis XV “seemed intent on highlighting the disparity between the conspicuous consumption of the royal family and the near bankruptcy of the nation”, thereby helping “to feed the terrible anger of the Revolution”.
Louis XVI, tellingly known as Louis “Capet”, went to the guillotine with his chaplain crying: “Son of St Louis, mount to Heaven.” Shennan’s verdict on him — that he had “neither the personality nor the intellectual capacity to cope” — could equally apply to all the later Bourbons. Invoking the names of their Capetian predecessors was easy; replicating their solid competence was beyond them.
Nearly two centuries of French republicanism have not ended the Bourbon monarchy, but merely displaced it. Across the southern border, Spain’s head of state is King Juan Carlos I, the reigning monarch from the House of Bourbon. That’s some continuity for Hugh Capet.
Sean McGlynn is a researcher at Cardiff University.
The Bourbons: The History of a Dynasty
Author - J. H. Shennan
Publisher - Hambledon Continuum
Pages - 222
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 9781852855239